(The following is an excerpt from Onshape’s eBook, “Modern CAD for Machine Design.” If you missed Part 1 of this blog, start here.)

Machines make the world go round. Consumers are aware, of course, that the vast majority of the products they buy are not handmade. But when they make a purchase, they don’t have to be concerned about the product’s complete evolution from raw materials to the store shelf.

To get a bit meta, who makes the machines that make the machines (or their parts)?

Figuring out how that happens is your job.

The individual tasks facing design and manufacturing teams vary significantly depending on their customer’s needs. But the pressures to iterate quickly and speed up the time to market are universally shared. In Part 1 of this blog, we explored how using Onshape’s modern CAD system helps teams boost speed and accuracy, introduce more flexibility, and improve the reliability of their processes.

In a previous post, we outlined three challenges facing modern machine designers. Let’s take a closer look at three other common challenges.

4. Machine Design Challenge: Modular Design

A modular machine design is more flexible, faster to change over, and (especially for medical device assembly and packaging machinery) easier to validate and easier to clean. Diagnosing issues is also much easier. When things go wrong, you can isolate the problem and replace the defective module quickly rather than bring down the entire production line. If a certain module is critical to your manufacturing process, keeping spares in case of a sudden problem, production bottleneck, or general wear and tear, can minimize downtime and repair costs.For the machine builder, a modular approach means less development time, smaller component inventories, and the ability to integrate a wider range of machine functions. More time can be spent focusing on the aspects of the machine that differentiate it from the competition and less time on components that are more generic.

There are several degrees of modularization that can be achieved in machine design -– from simple tooling changes (required to switch from one TV dinner to another, for example) to entire machines using a “plug and play” methodology. These “plug and play” machines offer the highest level of modularity and usually contain programmable units like pick-and-place robots that are easy to spec out in advance of a project.

An entire machine built with modular elements, however, can have significantly larger space requirements. Swapping out or interfacing with a customer’s existing equipment, dealing with unusual or restricted factory footprints, operator safety and other considerations can affect your ability to offer an off-the-shelf solution and may require further engineering. In these cases, the decision must be made whether it is more time and cost effective to re-engineer your modular machine design or build a one-off special purpose machine (which can still be modular, if required).

Modularizing a design is not a simple task. There are many factors to consider such as common mounting points and ease of access. Making a machine modular is no good if half the machine must be disassembled in order to swap out one or two small subassemblies. The push-button product change option is best handled in software, but that too is heavily reliant on innovative mechanical design.

How Onshape Speeds Up Modular Design

Onshape offers a number of design technologies that speed up the development of modular designs. Onshape’s modern take on part configurations enables families of parts to be created with the minimum amount of effort. You can configure practically any parametric value, and in combination with powerful multi-part Part Studios, drive entire subassemblies to quickly define and swap out modular systems. Unique, managed in-context design capabilities ensure that common mounting configurations can be easily standardized and verified for accuracy.

5. Machine Design Challenge: Communication

The most critical part of any machine design project is a thorough understanding of your customer’s requirements and expectations before, during and after the design of the machine. Defining a clear specification or statement of work up front prevents any problems or misunderstandings in the future and ensures that any defined speed, reliability or modular characteristics of the machine are achievable. A detailed specification enables you to plan and evaluate different machine elements, mechanical assemblies and control systems, calculate any price/performance trade-offs and reduce any risks to your business early in the design process.

The key to all this is understanding your customer’s needs inside and out with clear and concise communication at all times. By providing as much detailed design information from the start and delivering frequent design updates, you can help everyone, both customers and suppliers, to fully grasp your proposals and eliminate ambiguity and uncertainty. The more effective you are at explaining your design ideas, the higher the quality of feedback you will receive and the more likely you will be to get the order and any future business.

Supplying detailed design information to customers who don’t use the same CAD system as you or don’t use CAD at all is frustrating at best. Gathering, organizing and understanding their feedback is just as problematic. Confusion and misinterpretation are the most likely outcome. Copies of files and customer comments buried deep in email threads and scattered across dozens of computers have zero traceability, zero security and no way to determine which is the latest feedback or latest CAD file. The chances of parts being manufactured from incorrect data and incorrect assumptions are high.

How Onshape Improves Communication

In Onshape, all design data is stored in one secure location in the cloud and sharing your designs with others is as easy as adding their email address and specifying their access permissions. From the very beginning of your project, you can invite your customers to view and add detailed comments to your design. Comments apply directly to the part or assembly they refer to, so there’s no better way to share your point of view. Specifications and data sheets can be stored within the same project workspace and every design decision ever made is recorded for the lifetime of the project providing accountability at all levels.

6. Machine Design Challenge: Collaboration

Every project stakeholder (employee, customer and supplier) has valuable insights into the way a machine is designed and need to know how and why a machine is built in a certain way. Gathering direct customer feedback on a design before it goes into production can slash manufacturing costs and speed up production times. With your customer’s input, you can tailor a system that conforms to the demands that are unique to their application.

Working more closely with customers has been made easier by visualization tools that enable everyone to view complex machine designs without having to learn complex CAD software. However, distributing visualization software licenses and 3D machine data while keeping it always up to date does require a certain level of IT infrastructure and discipline. For every significant milestone in the design, files must be exported and saved to a read-only area of your network that is accessible by every stakeholder.

Problems arise when users take copies of files to view on a laptop when they’re not connected to the company network. Copies quickly become out of date, so there’s no guarantee that everyone has the latest information. Ideally, nobody should have access to the files, but the only other option is to conduct regular design reviews which are not easy to coordinate and don’t give each stakeholder the ability to explore the 3D design in detail on their own time.

As machine designs become more complex, multiple users must collaborate using the same 3D CAD data in order to incorporate all the customer requests and to get the job completed faster. Copies of files again cause issues – if one user is editing a file, another cannot, especially if a PDM system is managing the data. If there is no PDM, you could be overwriting another person’s work when you copy your copy of the file over the copy on the server. Managing complex CAD data this way can get chaotic very quickly.

How Onshape Boosts Collaboration

Onshape stores all your machine design data in one central location, where every stakeholder has instant access to the latest project information and no special viewing software is required. Each user can then interrogate the design, add comments or even edit the design if permissions allow. This enables a true collaborative workflow where every stakeholder’s input is captured, recorded and implemented into the final design. Onshape also allows your entire team, including your customers and suppliers, to work in the same Document, simultaneously editing the same assembly, same part or even the same sketch. This dramatically compresses the design cycle and reduces errors and rework.

With your customers working alongside you, in real-time, there are fewer issues, mistakes or misinterpretations. Your ultimate goal of delivering a machine ahead of time that meets or exceeds your customer’s specifications is much easier to achieve when there is just one single source of truth.

(Interested in exploring more design challenges? Get your copy of Onshape’s machine design eBook to learn how 5 companies improved their product development cycle.)